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NBJ Award: Leadership and Growth 135295

Three companies earned the NBJ Leadership and Growth Award for their efforts beyond just making supplements, but for giving back to the community and the planet.

Gil Asakawa, Associate Editor, Nutrition Business Journal

June 27, 2022

13 Min Read
Nutrition Business Journal

The winners of the 2021 Nutrition Business Journal Awards for Leadership and Growth are laudable for the passion they hold for their mission to do good for both people and the planet. These companies' founders saw a need to create products that showcase clean nutrition and create health and well-being for consumers, while paying attention to social and environmental justice. They're succeeding as businesses, but they're also inspirational role models for growth and helping their world become a better place.

Orgain is an acknowledged leader in protein and collagen powders, and an instantly recognizable brand. Seed, with its informational video advertisements, has a unique prebiotic and probiotic synbiotic capsule but is doing so much more. True Grace is supporting regenerative agriculture. All three are very different and at different points along their journey, but they deserve the industry's accolades for what they've accomplished.


Established company: Orgain

Orgain's origin story is well-known in part because the brand has been around since 2009 and has grown to more than a $2 billion company. It's also well-known because the company features a video of its founder and CEO, Andrew Abraham, telling the origin story. He's a cancer survivor who was inspired to start making his own protein drinks when his doctor gave him a protein shake and recommended that he drink it during his treatment. Appalled by the ingredients, Abraham, an MD himself, decided to make his own healthier shakes and protein drinks using vegetables—with his mom's help.

Those homemade shakes grew into a business, and Abraham eventually quit practicing medicine. But his career path as an entrepreneur was anything but planned. "Yeah, I would say there was really no plan for me to go into this industry," he says. "My dad was a doctor. Everyone in my family is a physician. I was basically told I could choose any career I want as long as I become a physician." When Abraham decided to embrace Orgain fulltime, his father was disappointed to lose the heir to the family practice. But it was the right decision.

"For me, it was one of those things. I think the reason why we've been so successful is it started with a mission and a passion for nutrition with no business plan."

After his cancer went into remission, Abraham realized there was an opportunity. "The business just kind of fell into place. I started in 2009, with the world's first ready-to-drink organic shake because I was so passionate about change in the nutrition industry."

Jordan Rubin, co-founder of Ancient Nutrition, a company started in 2016 that competes with Orgain, nods to Abraham's position as a pioneer. "Their organic ready-to-drink was their first product and certainly the first [organic] product I'd ever seen," he says. Rubin also started supplement line Garden of Life, and Ancient Nutrition just launched the first vegetarian collagen product, from fermented eggshell membrane, so he understands the impact of being a product pioneer.

NBJ sports nutrition by channel

Originally, Abraham thought he was leading a medical nourishment company, but it turned out to be a lifestyle company that appealed to moms on the go, business professionals, students and athletes. "I saw that there was a major need for people wanting clean nutrition, and it went from being this idea and this passion into this," he says. Once Orgain began producing healthy products for a mainstream lifestyle market, he knew that his business could scale. "And here we are now, as the global leader in clean nutrition."

He got a boost this year, when Nestlé Health Science took a majority stake in Orgain. Abraham says the Nestlé acquisition simply helps him implement his plans. "I think what it does is it augments or accelerates the future that I've really envisioned for the company. I didn't take the decision lightly. I have two boys that are 12 and 11, and there's an ongoing joke that Orgain is my third child. And it's not really much of a joke anymore."

He's raised his third child with years of blood, sweat, tears and sleepless nights. "We met with many, many companies, and Nestlé aligns perfectly with our products' mission in terms of really delivering nutrition to empower lives," he says. "And what we'll be able to do on the medical side, I was never able to do or accomplish on my own." He's aiming to expand with medical products and give Orgain a big presence across the globe, including Asia.

Abraham also wants Orgain to "hyper focus" on kids and help address the domestic crisis of childhood diabetes, with shakes and other products to establish healthy diets early on. "Being able to innovate around kids' nutrition, I think, is going to set the stage for the future health of our children."

Rubin credits Orgain's growth in part to the company's channel strategy, especially in getting into big retailers like Costco, which Rubin says is "like winning the lottery."

Costco has stacks of Orgain products, both protein and collagen powders, on its floors. Asked about the company's animal-sourced collagen products placed alongside plant-based protein powders, Abraham notes that his first shakes had organic vegetables, but were dairy based. "Plant based really, I believe, is the future," he says, but he saw the studies about collagen and felt its benefit himself when he and his wife tried it. He now uses his own brand of collagen with superfoods powder every morning. "Our focus is not necessarily plant based or dairy or collagen. We want to be the clean leader in every space."

Asked if he sees himself as the "big dog" in the protein powder space, he shrugs off the term. "I don't really see myself as the big dog, which is good, right? We always operate like a startup. We innovate constantly. If you come to our offices in Irvine, you'll see that we're trying 25 new products every week. There's just a real focus on innovating and being scrappy," he explains.

The pressure he feels—"the biggest thing that keeps me up"—is being the responsible for consumers' health. "There's kids using [our product], there's cancer patients, there's you name it, it goes across the board, elite athletes and Olympic athletes using our product and depending on our product. So, for me, it's less about the scale of the company and more that we're reaching millions of people every day. And it's on me to make sure that we are delivering the absolute best, cleanest product focusing on the best ingredients possible."

Abraham's passion for his customers is sincere. His dad may have initially been disappointed that he didn't take over the family practice, but in the end, Orgain became part of his life, too. "My dad passed away about five-and-a-half years ago," he says, "and his last 18-and-a-half months of life he sustained himself solely on Orgain." The elder Abraham could not tolerate food but lived for almost two years. "So, for me, it's a very personal thing. For me, it's much more than a protein company or a super innovative company. It's a company that's changing lives."

Abraham takes that life-changing mission to a charitable end for cancer patients. "Since day one, when we weren't making any money, if anyone can't afford it that's dealing with cancer, we have a policy that our product is shipped no questions asked," he says. "That's all we need to hear. And we supply the product free of charge, and all we ask is for them to give us an update on their health and to help us spread the word. That's really it."

Seed Health

Scaling company: Seed

Seed Health was started in 2016 and its main product, DS-01 Daily Synbiotic, is a combination probiotic and prebiotic supplement with a unique, proprietary capsule-in-capsule design that allows the ingredient to survive the digestion process to do its work in the intestines, where it's needed.

Everything about the company, from its ingenious "ViaCap" capsule, its environmentally friendly packaging, a subscription model to its SeedLabs work exploring the frontiers of microbiomes and synbiotics, speaks to the dedication to science that the company brings to everything it does. The company just launched PDS-08, the only 9-strain probiotic and fiber-based prebiotic for children aged 3-17. Like the adult capsules, the kids' version is designed to actually get to the gut.

Raja Dhir, co-founder and co-CEO, says that was the goal. "I made the decision to start Seed and to make it really a science-based company like this," he says. And there's a lot of science still to be explored with microbiomes. "Microbiome sciences is really a frontier field," he points out.

To that end, Seed partners and collaborates with a variety of institutions from universities like Harvard to hospitals and labs, in addition to conducting in-house research. Seed's synbiotic product is marketed in short videos and ads online that take the serious science and explain it in plain language without talking down to consumers. Even the company's website has a section that features "Microbiome 101" and "Probiotic 101" to educate people in a plain conversational manner. "The communication of science is a company pillar. We take it very seriously," Dhir says, pointing to a customer service division called Site Care that answers scientific and technical questions for non-scientific and non-technical people.

Seed's commitment to science is gloriously displayed in its work through SeedLabs, where the company is in the midst of researching how to apply microbiome concepts to areas most people would never think of, like biomaterials, uses in space, or in agriculture. Two projects currently underway include using probiotics to improve honeybees' immune resistance to climate change, pesticides, disease and habitat loss. The company developed a "BioPatty" with three probiotic strains for bees and is conducting research on how to save coral reefs by preventing bleaching and enhancing coral calcification.

"There's no reason why research should stop with commercial products," Dhir adds. "Since the very beginning, we've prioritized making basic kinds of investments in ecology, in the environment. Our goal is to do strong basic science in highly novel applications of microbes that has ecological impact."

Greg Horn, managing director and partner at William Hood & Company and CEO of Specialty Nutrition Consulting, is a big fan and calls the company's commitment to demonstrating efficacy its strongest differentiator. "Can you actually prove it? That's what Seed is doing. They're proving things work in ways that are meaningful to human health."

Horn has followed Seed's progress simply because he was impressed with how they applied scientific development, not just business development. "I just think they've been building something really special, and seeing entrepreneurs in the space do that is one of the big joys of being in this category."

True Grace

Emerging company: True Grace

Kristina Hall, co-founder and chief marketing officer of True Grace, a supplement company that produces vitamins, probiotics and omega oils all in an environmentally-conscious way, chose a scary time to launch her new company. "We ironically started the company the month the entire country shutdown, March of 2020. We quit our jobs at the end of February, of course not knowing what was to come, and then, yeah, we were stuck at home with a one-year-old and a three-year-old trying to plan our new business when everything was shut down."

But the COVID pandemic didn't shut down True Grace. The brand made it to launch and won a NEXTY Award for Best New Supplement for Expo West 2022 with their Daily Women's Probiotic.

But what makes True Grace an NBJ Award winner for leadership and growth is the company's passion and dedication to regenerative agriculture, conscious and transparent sourcing, and even their packaging: small reusable bottles made of recycled plastic (no virgin plastic is used), and recyclable pouches for refills.

NBJ probiotics sales and growth

The company started in 2020, but the first products launched last October. True Grace is about as emerging as an emerging company could be. "It's always a bit nerve wracking, building a brand when so much time goes by before you've actually had the big reveal," she admits. "You hope and pray that everyone's going to love your brand as much as you do. So, it's been really amazing to see the response we've gotten. And really the icing on the cake was to win that NEXTY. We are so proud of that."

True Grace is led by Hall, her husband Brian Hall as CEO, and Sara Newmark as COO, all veterans of the natural products industry with 70 years of combined experience, and their passion for the environment isn't just a marketing spin. The company is rigorous about the science behind the products, and equally prioritizes its determination to help the planet. "My husband and I have been in the supplement industry essentially our entire careers," Hall says. "We knew that if we started a brand, we wanted to do it a bit differently than how anyone else was doing it. When we set out to create our mission and vision, we started out by saying we wanted to regenerate the health of people and planet. And that's really what kind of inspired us in everything we do."

Because modern agriculture has depleted the country's soil and peoples' health is depleted, True Grace decided to help both by focusing on nutrient densities by way of soil health. "Because our soil is so depleted, sourcing ingredients that are regeneratively grown is really important. And then it's twofold, because the consumers that are purchasing those ingredients and taking those ingredients are regenerating their bodies."

That commitment to regenerative agriculture has been a hallmark of the brand from its beginning. The couple were introduced to the concepts by Sara Newmark's father Tom Newmark, a pioneer of the regenerative agriculture movement. Years before the term became a buzzword, Tom Newmark approached Hall's family foundation, "to see if we wanted to get behind and support helping create a standard."

That early understanding of regenerative agriculture is just one piece of proof that the Halls and Newmark are earnest about environmental issues, says Robert Craven, managing partner of Findaway Adventures and former CEO of MegaFood, where he worked with Sara Newmark. He admires True Grace because, he says, the founders are true believers, and they don't get lost in their passion for the cause. "They want to save the planet and change the world, but they've got significant experience that flows into their product in a way that's very thoughtful and very intentional. So, true believers are going to create products whether it meets a market need or not. It's not about the classic strategic approach."

True Grace, he adds, hearkens back to an earlier era of the industry. "They remind me of the natural retailers that helped start the industry. There were true believers there. That's the biggest compliment I can give to anyone in the space."

Nutrition Business Journal Awards Issue 2022

The Awards Issue of NBJ is available at no cost at the NBJ Store, where you can also find out how to subscribe and see what specialized reports are offered for sale. 


About the Author(s)

Gil Asakawa

Associate Editor, Nutrition Business Journal, NEW HOPE NETWORK

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